Tom Gilson

Dark Ages and Light

Earlier this month Nickell John Romjue gave me a book of short stories he had written, Out of the Riven Century: Stories of a Turning Time. I have already reviewed another anthology of his, The Black Box: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud – Stories. If I were writing a review again this time I would echo my earlier praise. Romjue uniquely combines an understanding of modern and postmodern intellectual currents—especially their absurdity—with the fiction writer’s sense of character and irony, and a seemingly almost sensual love for language.

This time, though, I wish to let his words lead us to some questions. On page 74 of Out of the Riven Century the character, ruminating on the glorious Gothic cathedrals of light, asks in contrast

the reason for that colossal self-deception of our century that subjected the objective reality of our world beneath the conceit of the latest enlightened generation. To me this seemed a sinking-back to a ptolemaic world, the human brain replacing the earth as that around which everything revolved.

I could not help trying to distill the consequences. What had been the human results of those retreating horizons, drawn short and tight by the now-dead priests of matter? Let us name them, these tumbled idols, prisoners of their age, jailers of ours—Marx and Darwin and Freud. What was their achievement? Self-loathing, lonely and malleable man, mortar of the bloody utopias of our century’s strutting supermen. How could it have been otherwise for a credulous era that embraced on faith its own self-label of random higher beast?

Reading this, I thought he could have further mentioned Nietzsche, Haeckel, Dewey, Sartre and Camus, Derrida and Rorty; and following in their trail and the trail of others, all the grandiose genocidal dictators of the 20th century. And I recalled this from the previous story in the same book (page 59),

In the waning of the Modern Ages, what was the legacy of the great founders?

It was the moral sensibility of that rationalized the medical farming of fetal brain matter. It was the Gentle Land, the lethal utopia once again. It was the desolation of marriage and the war of all against all in the plague of the dying century that science, comprehending all, did not comprehend.

And I asked myself, why do some still insist on calling those former days the Dark Ages? (Romjue asked the same question a page or two later, for that was where he was headed all along.) The conceit is that they were lacking intellectually, which is a prejudice that historians now are finding was false all along. Of course knowledge has grown massively since then; but is knowledge the only light? What about beauty and art? What about love? What about hope, and glory? What about understanding and doing what is right?

What brightness have we left behind in embracing “these tumbled idols”?

But I would not want to be overly pessimistic. A classic Christmas carol reminds us, “Yet in these dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Jesus Christ came as the light to brighten all the years, all the ages. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4,5).

Every age is both dark and light.

As far as I know the Bible does not say Jesus was born at night, but the imagery around his birth is filled with this contrast: the bright star in the night guiding the Magi; the angels appearing in light to the shepherds at night. The shepherds hurried, it says (Luke 2:8-16), and found Jesus as the angels had said they would, which perhaps implies a nighttime birth. It would be more than fitting if Jesus did indeed come that way: the light-life of the world piercing the dead of night.

The light shines. The darkness has not and cannot overcome it.

Not in any age.

Merry Christmas, once again!

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19 thoughts on “Dark Ages and Light

  1. Yet more guilt by association of Nietzsche and Derrida through the persona and admitted incoherencies of Rorty. Yes, ‘postmodernism’ as it is found in the wider culture is relativistic, but most of the primary thinkers are not! There are plenty of people to directly criticize without having to accept their (mis)interpretations of the primary thinkers.

    Ok, my usual soap box rant is done…

  2. And the relativism of so-called postmodernism (with the inclusion of Nietzsche and Derrida) is not part of the “absurdity” mentioned in the post? Surely you and this author are including relativism as part of the darkness that you are referring to. Yet even if that wasn’t the case, I still think that Nietzsche and Derrida certainly should not be included. If we understand Nietzsche’s anti-morality in terms of the classical Greek notion of phronesis/virtue ethics (Nietzsche was, after all, a classicist), then neither relativism nor destructive darkness applies. In addition, Derrida’s work is exactly to bring to light the subjugated, whether it be philosophical concepts or peoples. Deconstruction is first and foremost a positive and constructive endeavor, pointing to the excess that philosophies of presence inherently deny. My issue stands.

  3. You can champion Nietzsche and Derrida all you like, Kevin, but your credibility takes a huge hit if you want us to think they were proponents of the Light who came at Christmas, or of the Word who was God and who was in the beginning with God, or of God himself revealed in Jesus Christ, or of the righteousness that is found through faith in Christ. How can you in one paragraph stand for Derrida, whom you say worked to bring the subjugated to light, and Nietzsche, philosopher of the Übermensch, scorner of what he called the weak morality of Christianity?

  4. I didn’t even intimate that Derrida or Nietzsche were defenders of Christ. But that they stand for light, yes, I will say that in “one paragraph.” I can stand for Derrida and Nietzsche because of the absolutely horrible understanding that Evangelicals have perpetuated through their philosophical idols–Moreland, Craig, Smith, and Groothuis. I stand against the darkness that their simplistic and erroneous interpretations of these thinkers thrust on these thinkers’ names and thought and which Evangelicals accept uncritically by not doing their own research, further perpetuating the lies. I certainly don’t agree with everything either of them said, but that doesn’t mean that I will not stand up to ignorance, especially when it exudes from so-called defenders of the light you reference.

  5. Since you made the addition after I started responding to your post: Nietzsche’s disagreement was with divine command theory and the grammatification/codification of ‘ethical’ rules. Per his classical training, he proposed instead a strong virtue ethic where ethical action stems from one’s phronetic grasp of the situation, not a set of un-nuanced and un-skillful rule or law following. While some of this can be codified, it certainly requires epistemological skills that a divine command theory does not require per its ‘command’ nature, hence the “weak morality” of those whose skillful grasp of various contexts is not sufficient to bring about skillful and ethical action. By comparison, a phronesis-based ethic is certainly ‘stronger’ (or requires more effort to cultivate the skill) than a law-based ethic.

  6. Yes, you referenced it after essentially stating (through Romjue) that Nietzsche and Derrida are both “[s]elf-loathing, lonely and malleable [men], mortar of the bloody utopias of our century’s strutting supermen,” who are prime examples of darkness-spreaders. Whatever your Biblical references, this misrepresentation should not stand.

  7. And his view of Jesus Christ, and of God’s existence, and of God’s majesty and holiness, and of the grace-powered ethic of the New Testament, and of living by faith in Christ, was … ?

  8. First, I am claiming that the ‘clarity’ you see is false, unfounded, based on a facile understanding of Nietzsche’s thought. Again, it is not Christianity per se that Nietzsche is waring against (nor is his philosophy essentially anti-Christian), but the command theory that Christianity has traditionally championed. Second, I already said that I do not agree with everything Nietzsche said, so your denouncing me as also(?) being anti-Christian is suspect and based on a rather large lack of evidence about me, my beliefs, or my character.

  9. You are equating all light with theism which is tantamount to saying that only theists can proclaim truth, can bring light to the world. Just because Nietzsche himself denied Jesus Christ, God’s existence, etc. is not the same as saying that he is a spreader of darkness, a perpetuator of lies, someone that we cannot usefully mine for wisdom about the human condition. Again, this also doesn’t mean that we have to or even should agree with everything he said. But if you take the standard Evangelical treatment of Nietzsche’s beliefs as accurate, then you are going to be misguided in your understanding, which I am arguing is the case with your including Nietzsche (and Derrida) in the list of “[s]elf-loathing, lonely and malleable [men], mortar of the bloody utopias of our century’s strutting supermen”.

  10. Note to other readers: Nietzsche and Derrida were not the main point of this post, and I would not want you to think from this interchange with Kevin Winters that they were. They are (as you can see) a hot topic for Mr. Winters, which is fine, I suppose, for him. I readily grant that I do not understand either Nietzsche or Derrida (especially Derrida) as thoroughly as he does. Yet I could re-write the post without their names, and it would say quite the same thing, by which I mean to say that they are hardly the main thing I was trying to talk about.

    I regret having had to make a digression off the main point of the blog post this way. I hope you caught that main point, and I invite you to discuss it.

  11. I apologize for the digression, but this is never discussed anywhere else (why should it when it is assumed to be a foregone conclusion?) so that no one would know about this issue, which is central to the Evangelical anti-postmodernism campaign. So I bring it up when it is raised, even as a secondary point, in the hopes that some will see that it at least could be an issue (as I don’t think my expositions in this medium can be sufficient to adequately argue it) and will do their own research from other non-Evangelical sources rather than blindly assume that their philosophical idols are giving correct expositions. If desired, I am willing to drop it for this post so that the main point will not be lost.

  12. You are equating all light with theism which is tantamount to saying that only theists can proclaim truth, can bring light to the world.

    Heavens, no! I am equating all light with Jesus Christ, by which I mean to say that only he can bring light to the world. This is not to deny common grace, by which he brings light to the world through means other than theists or Biblical theology. But it is to place him at the center, as the one and only source.

    Just because Nietzsche himself denied Jesus Christ, God’s existence, etc. is not the same as saying that he is a spreader of darkness, a perpetuator of lies, someone that we cannot usefully mine for wisdom about the human condition.

    I’ll grant that we can very usefully mine his works for wisdom about the human condition. He was also a recipient of and a means for passing along common grace; and there is much to learn from him. The Madman, for example, knew better than most what the (purported) death of God entailed for the world. But in denying Jesus Christ and God’s existence, he most assuredly was spreading darkness and perpetuating lies. I stand by that.

  13. You are reading an awful lot into what I am saying, Kevin. Earlier you said I was referencing Moreland, Craig, etc., when I was not. Now you say I have denounced you as anti-Christian, when what I did was to point out that here you have taken your stand with those who stand against it. That’s all I said.

  14. No, I never said you were “referencing” anyone beyond Romjue, though I have little doubt that Moreland et al.’s expositions inform your view and the views of many Christians, philosophers, would-be-philosophers, and non-philosophers alike. On the second matter, to say that someone “stand[s] against…Jesus Christ” is to say that they are anti-Christian. If you are not saying that I am likewise being anti-Christian then why rhetorically place my siding with Nietzche on the same line as Nietzsche’s own denials of Christ? Yes, I could be reading it too closely, but it seems like you’re equating my ‘siding’ with Nietzsche to be a sign of my ‘standing’ against Christ.

  15. To the extent, Kevin, that one stands with those who stand against Christ, to that same extent that person is standing against Christ. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing, and I am drawing no conclusions about your spiritual life beyond what can be observed here. In fact, I didn’t even draw a personal conclusion about you, I just stated a principle that I think you and everyone else ought to take into advisement: that to stand with those who stand against Christ is to stand against Christ.

    In fact, I’m not even assuming you agree with the most obviously anti-Christian positions Nietzsche takes, because Nietzsche himself was not an all-or-nothing anti-Christian thinker. The overall thrust of his message was against Christ, however, so it’s certainly something to watch out for.

    So you can draw whatever conclusions fit you from this, and explain to us (if you care) what does not fit, but I stand by my opinion regarding Nietzsche, and I think for a Biblical Christian it would be very hard to find anything to recommend about his overall approach to God and ethics.

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